Prescription for pain: Young addict finds road to recovery

recovery-addiction-pilsEvery now and then, Abbie Stenberg checks the “Days Clean Tracker” app on her cellphone.

One day in late August, she held the phone out to show her progress.

“You have been clean for: 184 Days. That is: 6 month(s) 4 days.”

It marked the longest she’d been clean outside of a drug-treatment program since she got hooked on marijuana and pills during her sophomore year at Barrington High School.

Abigail Stenberg was the secretary of SADD, or Students Against Destructive Decisions. The “hugs-not-drugs girl.” The cheerleader. The gymnast. The softball player.

The drug addict.

She is part of a generation of adolescents and young adults from middle-class communities around Rhode Island whose easy access to prescription pills has fostered what health officials call an epidemic of prescription drug abuse.

Nationally, one in four teenagers reported they had misused or abused prescription drugs at least once in their lifetime, according to a 2012 survey by The Partnership at and the MetLife Foundation.

Rhode Island is one of the top 10 states in the country with the highest rates of abuse of prescription pain relievers among 18- to 25-year-olds, according to a 2010-’11 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In suburban communities, law enforcement officials say, teenagers are more apt to abuse prescription pills than, say, cocaine or heroin, simply because they’re so available. Often, they’re right in their medicine cabinets.

At 23, with blond hair, brown eyes and dimples, Stenberg looks like an Ivory soap girl, except for the track marks on her arms.

Looking back, Stenberg says, she can trace the roots of her addiction: her family history of alcoholism; her anxiety and depression; her tendency to do everything in excess, whether it was reading the Harry Potter series or playing sports.

Then she hurt her back doing gymnastics and a doctor prescribed Vicodin.

The hydrocodone-based painkiller is generally prescribed after surgery or sometimes for chronic pain. It’s also sought by drug abusers for its euphoria-inducing effects.

“I like to say that my sports career ended, and my drug career began.”

She was 14.

Even after her back improved, she would exaggerate her pain to get another Vicodin.

“My brain runs really fast. It runs way too fast sometimes,” she says. “I liked the way it turned my brain off for a while.”

By sophomore year, she had started smoking marijuana with friends after school.

Soon she was selling her Adderall pills that she’d been taking since middle school to treat her attention deficit disorder so she could buy marijuana.

“People in my school found out that I was on it, and all of a sudden I was the most popular kid in school.”

She spent the rest of high school in and out of substance-abuse treatment programs, including an eight-month stay during her junior year at Caritas House, a residential treatment program specializing in adolescent substance abuse.

Doctors became Stenberg’s suppliers, prescribing anti-anxiety and sleeping pills, which she says she would use to try to get high. Klonopin. Librium. Ambien.

“You say, like: ‘I get these terrible spurts of anxiety and feel like it’s never going to go away. I’ve tried everything else.’ ”

Like others afflicted with chronic illnesses, she had stretches of good health interspersed with setbacks. She graduated from Barrington High School and enrolled at Johnson & Wales University with hopes of studying psychology so she could help other people like her.

But the stress of college was too much; she left after two weeks, moved home and worked a series of jobs — telemarketing sales, a bagel shop, an antique store — until her mother caught her using marijuana again and told her to move out.

She moved around, living with boyfriends and family members. Once, after breaking up with a boyfriend, she swallowed a bottle of Librium that she’d been taking for anxiety. She landed in the hospital.

Her mother, she says, tried to help — signing her up for a new drug-treatment program and sending her grocery deliveries from Peapod when she had no food in her apartment. (Her mother declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Her grandmother took her in for a time, cooked for her, and sat up at night in her rocking chair with her rosary beads, waiting for Abbie to walk through the door.

By 2010, Stenberg was living with a new boyfriend, a drug dealer who introduced her to a network of prescription pill suppliers: alcoholics, the chronically ill and the elderly.

One day, a customer offered to sell her an “oxy.”

The drug, she says, was a “game-changer.”

The painkiller OxyContin, prescribed to cancer patients and those with chronic pain, had become popular among recreational drug users and addicts.

Stenberg and her friends would lick off the blue coating, crush the tablets and snort the powder.

“It would go from a weekend thing,” she says, “to an every other day thing to ‘We wake up every morning and need them. …”

They’d tell themselves they weren’t like ordinary junkies. “We’d say: ‘Oh, we take classier drugs than that!’ ”

If she couldn’t get high, she’d feel miserably sick. Cold sweats. Stomach cramps. Muscle aches. Shakes.

She was spending $100 to $200 a day on drugs.

Sometimes she’d get desperate for a fix and call her mother. I ran out of my prescriptions, she’d tell her. I don’t have any money.

“I was just manipulating, lying, using all day long,” she says. “Just finding stupid ways to get money to get drugs. … I didn’t have a life. I had a drug life.”

She lost weight. The drugs made her teeth brittle and wore off the enamel.

In 2010, in response to a sharp rise in overdose deaths, the makers of OxyContin replaced the crushable tablets with ones that broke into chunks so they couldn’t be easily snorted. And adding water turned the substance into a gelatinous goop, making it difficult to inject.

That’s when Stenberg turned to heroin.

By 2012, she was living in a Providence apartment with two other young women and spending her days alone in her room, shooting heroin and smoking crack.

One night, she says, she shot herself up and her arm swelled up and her veins turned black.

She spent the next seven days at Butler Hospital. While she was there, her beloved “Grandma Tev” died.

“I’m very ashamed to say that I barely remember the service,” she says, “but I know that she was guiding my recovery from then on.”

In her journal (“my flotation device”), she wrote of her grandmother:

“…She never once gave up her faith in me in the hope that I may one day recover. So this time I’m going to prove to her that I can and will, not just for myself but for her and for the rest of the family, the believers and the non-believers. Mostly this is for you, Gram.”

Last year, after spending nearly three months at two residential drug-treatment programs, Stenberg got help through a federal Access To Recovery grant for mental health counseling, rent and a RIPTA bus pass so she could live in a recovery house.

Now, she is working full time at a restaurant and paying $125-a-week rent for a room in a recovery house in Cranston. She has joined a 12-step program and attends meetings at The Anchor Recovery Community Center in Pawtucket.

“Now I have all these people I can turn to who genuinely are there for me,” she says.

She talks about her addiction as a disease, and recovery as a gift.

“It’s something I’m going to be battling with for the rest of my life,” she says. “I feel like I have to be constantly vigilant about, you know, going in the right direction.”

She’d like to return to college and study psychology. She needs a job with dental insurance so she can fix her teeth.

On Saturday, she carried a torch and marched with others in recovery and their supporters in downtown Providence for Rhode Island’s Rally4Recovery.

She measured her progress in days. To be exact: 213 days.

That’s seven months and one day. Article Link..

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